Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Latest Developments in the UNGA Death Penalty Moratorium Resolutions


Daniel Pascoe
Associate Professor of Law, City University of Hong Kong
Sangmin Bae
Professor of Political Science, Northeastern Illinois University


Time to read

7 Minutes

The eighth and most recent iteration of the United Nations General Assembly’s death penalty moratorium resolution was passed on 16 December 2020, with 123 votes in favour, 38 votes against, 24 countries abstaining and 8 being absent. For the abolition movement, Resolution 75/183 adds to the success of previous votes in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2018 in repeating calls for a global moratorium on executions, with an increased level of support at each time of asking. Every resolution has differed subtly from the previous version, with the 2020 resolution for the first time including language drawing attention to death row prison conditions, gendered aspects of death penalty practice, juvenile executions in circumstances when the defendant’s age cannot be verified, a requirement for reasonable notice of an execution date, an opportunity for family members to pay their final visits, and the return of the body of an executed prisoner to his or her family, or at least information on where the body is located.

Our recently published research (Pascoe and Bae 2020, Pascoe and Bae 2021) considers the seven resolutions passed between 2007 and 2018, their co-sponsorship and the accompanying note verbale,

[i] within the context of each state’s domestic death penalty practices. Relying on both primary and secondary data sources including voting records, government documents and interviews with diplomatic decision-makers at national UN missions in New York, we analysed domestic and international influences on state behaviour relating to the moratorium resolutions. After accounting for general temporal and geographical trends, we focused particular attention on those countries who vote in an unexpected (‘idiosyncratic’) way that seemingly runs counter to their domestic death penalty laws and practices. With most countries that have abolished capital punishment for all crimes voting in favour of the resolution, and most countries which retain and use capital punishment (or plan to) voting against the resolution,[ii] the remaining idiosyncratic cases are the following:

  • abolitionist for all crimes countries that nonetheless vote against the resolution;
  • retentionist countries that nonetheless vote in favour of the resolution;
  • abolitionist for all crimes or retentionist countries that abstain or are absent from the vote; and
  • abolitionist in practice countries that commit themselves either way by voting in favour of or against the resolution.[iii]

This post updates our analysis as it relates to the 2020 resolution. There are three intertwined issues that evolve from year to year: states’ domestic death penalty practices (using Amnesty International’s classification scheme), the co-sponsorship list and the plenary vote outcome. In 2018, the sole abolitionist state which voted against the resolution was Nauru, while the seven retentionist states which voted in favour were Chad, Dominica, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Libya, Malaysia and Somalia.[iv] In 2020, no abolitionist state voted against the resolution (the same occurred in 2010, 2012 and 2014), whereas Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Jordan, Lebanon and Malaysia were the five retentionist states to vote in favour.

UN General Assembly Hall, New York

Photo credit: UN Photo via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

In the past, such strong idiosyncratic positions on the part of retentionist states have been explainable by either lobbying from the abolitionist side (particularly the European Union), or more optimistically, by the state’s new international stance foreshadowing imminent domestic change, as with previous instances in Burundi (2007-2008), Mongolia (2010) and Guatemala (2007-2016), among others. Gambia, having ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)’s Second Optional Protocol, now seems the strongly idiosyncratic ‘yes’ voter where formal abolition is most imminent. Equatorial Guinea is presently observing a moratorium on executions, and must abolish capital punishment by law as a condition of joining the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP), but has delayed doing so. In the remaining three idiosyncratic retentionist states, Jordan, Lebanon and Malaysia, the courts continue to pass death sentences with regularity. South Korea, abolitionist in practice and abstaining in all seven prior resolutions, also became an idiosyncratic ‘yes’ voter for the first time in 2020, signalling a step closer to formal abolition. Among its near neighbours in East Asia, South Korea has now become the first ‘yes’ voter in the moratorium resolution. It would be a seismic step for the anti-death penalty movement if the country also abolished in law.

The number of absentee states increased from five (2018) to a record of eight (2020), presumably explainable by the Covid-19 pandemic, the shift to online voting, and other domestic and international priorities among small states. However, Nigeria and Senegal’s absences, despite their substantial diplomatic presence in New York, fit a previous pattern of deliberate ‘fence-sitting’ through absence or abstention. Gabon’s absence is a particular blow for abolitionist campaigners, as Gabon was a consistent ‘yes’ voter and co-sponsor, and had even acted as one of the lead sponsors of the resolution (in 2007).

The biggest shift in 2020 was in the number of abstentions. The decline from 32 to 24 symbolises greater polarisation in the moratorium debate between the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ factions. In fact, none of the 24 countries which abstained in 2020 are abolitionist for all crimes, or even for ordinary crimes only, unlike for all previous iterations of the resolution. What this suggests, alongside the lack of idiosyncratic ‘no’ voting by abolitionists, is that campaigning by fervent resolution opponents such as Singapore and Egypt is becoming increasingly ineffective among ambivalent states. If it has an impact, it is among a smaller, more hardcore, minority of retentionist states within East Asia and the Islamic world who will later proceed to sign a note verbale in condemnation.[v] In 2020, the biggest ‘success’ for the retentionist lobby was the increased majority for the ‘sovereignty’ amendment first introduced in 2016 by Singapore. Nevertheless, the passage in the resolution now asserting “the sovereign right of all countries to develop their own legal systems… [and] legal penalties” merely restates a legal reality, that death penalty retention is not prohibited per se by international law. It does not affect the normative thrust of the resolution towards abolition, nor the fact that the practice of capital punishment remains heavily restricted by treaty and custom.

With the increasing divergence between the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps at the General Assembly, abolitionist activists and governments will find it more difficult in the leadup to future resolutions to persuade the remaining retentionist states to alter their international positions. The most promising candidates are those abolitionist ‘in practice’ abstentionists who have not executed for several decades,[vi] remembering that the resolution’s most important clause calls for a moratorium on executions, ‘with a view to’ abolition in law, rather than for immediate abolition once the ink is dry on the page – as demonstrated by South Korea’s recent change from abstention to a ‘yes’ vote.

As for co-sponsorship, one of our diplomatic interviewees in New York suggested that working to increase the total number offers ‘diminishing returns’, even if Amnesty International has previously aimed at crossing the 100-state barrier for co-sponsors. The gradual decline in co-sponsors from a peak of 95 (2014) to 77 (2020) isn’t a major cause for concern, with the plenary vote serving as a far better indicator of global political sentiment against the practice of executions. Co-sponsorship serves a more instrumental role, in procuring an ultimate ‘yes’ vote at the plenary. Still, a significant development on co-sponsorship in 2020 was the post-Brexit United Kingdom’s late withdrawal of its co-sponsorship to protest the ‘sovereignty’ amendment, the first time this has ever occurred on the part of any member state. Although the UK still voted in favour of the amended resolution at both the Third Committee and the plenary stages, withdrawal of co-sponsorship over the sovereignty issue alone may set a dangerous precedent threatening the future growth of the plenary vote.[vii]

Although the UN General Assembly moratorium resolutions are not formally binding on states, they carry significant moral weight and are a barometer of the strength of the abolitionist movement, alongside the counts of domestic abolitionists and adherents to the ICCPR’s Second Optional Protocol. Each of these three political acts are interconnected. If human rights campaigners can maintain the momentum at the General Assembly from vote to vote, more political pressure will fall upon those recalcitrant retentionist states to halt executions, abolish in law and ultimately adhere to the Second Optional Protocol to make abolition irreversible. Although the 2020 vote encapsulates the Assembly’s increasing polarisation on this issue, there remain more than enough ambivalent states in the middle to grow the abolition movement further.

Daniel Pascoe (dcpascoe@cityu.edu.hk) is an Associate Professor at the School of Law, City University of Hong Kong, and an MPhil and DPhil graduate of the Oxford Centre for Criminology. Twitter: @DC_Pascoe

Sangmin Bae (sbae@neiu.edu) is the Bernard J. Brommel Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the College of Arts and Sciences, Northeastern Illinois University.


[i] The note verbale, issued between one and nine months after every UNGA resolution thus far, takes the form of a petition circulated among UN member states seeking to condemn the result of the previous vote. At the time of writing, the note verbale relating to the December 2020 resolution has not yet been issued. See Pascoe and Bae (2021) for further analysis on the notes verbale.

[ii] Amnesty International’s widely-adopted four-part classification system for death penalty practice consists of countries that have 1) abolished for all crimes in law; 2) abolished ‘in practice’, meaning they retain in law but have not executed a prisoner for 10+ years and evince no intention to do so; 3) abolished ‘for ordinary crimes only’, meaning they retain the death penalty for extraordinary offences such as treason or military offences only, and 4) countries that retain the death penalty by law, and either execute prisoners or else display an intention to do so. While ‘abolitionist for ordinary crimes only’ states generally track the voting practices of ‘abolitionist for all crimes’ states, ‘abolitionist in practice’ states evince a wide range of votes across the various moratorium resolutions. Our working assumption is that they will abstain, reflecting a median position (Pascoe and Bae 2020). For a recent academic critique of Amnesty International’s classification system, see Schabas WA, ‘International law and the abolition of the death penalty’ in CS Steiker and JM Steiker, Comparative Capital Punishment (Edward Elgar 2019).

[iii] ibid.

[iv] Pakistan voted ‘yes’ in 2018 but later tried to rescind that vote as a technical mistake.

[v] See n 1.

[vi] Such as the following states: Eswatini (last execution 1983, one person on death row) and Niger (1976, unknown). Abolitionist in law Senegal (last execution 1967), which has never previously voted ‘yes’, is another likely candidate.

[vii] In 2020, there were 66 initial co-sponsors which voted against the sovereignty amendment at the committee stage, including the UK. All of these nations voted ‘yes’ at the plenary stage.